LOST AND FOUND SALVADORAN ADOPTEES NOW BEING RECLAIMED

Date: 1996-08-02

Akron Beacon Journal (OH)
Author: JIM QUINN, Beacon Journal staff writer / The Associated Press contributed to this report.

The world exploded twice for the girl with two names.

It happened first in 1984, when a bomb blew up in the Salvadoran sky over Imelda Lainez, sending shrapnel into her 6-year-old body.

It happened again this year, when the girl now called Gina Craig, a 17-year-old from Munroe Falls who had grown up being told her parents were dead, learned she had another name and another family in El Salvador.

Now thousands of American families -- including as many as 500 in Northeast Ohio -- have good reason to wonder whether their adopted children have biological parents searching for them in El Salvador.

"I am very shocked. I don't want to believe it," said Pat Burns, a spokeswoman for the Kent-based group Concern for Children. The group helped several hundred Northeast Ohio families adopt children from Latin America, most from El Salvador, she said. "We had faith in the people we worked with," Burns said, stressing that the group adopted children from state-run orphanages only after Salvadoran judges and U.S. officials verified that the children were either orphaned or abandoned.

But the discovery of Gina Craig -- the first child traced to the United States after being stolen by Salvadoran soldiers -- has forced officials in both countries to admit that the U.S.-backed soldiers deliberately kidnapped children from rebel families as part of a calculated effort to demoralize their enemy. They falsified stories about the children, claiming that their parents were killed in battle, and put them in orphanages to be adopted by families around the world.

The story of Gina Craig/Imelda Lainez shows how it happened to her and other Salvadoran children, and how the tragedy has finally reached America.

It began in 1984, when Tom and Stephanie Craig decided to add to their family. The Craigs, who were living then in Stow, already had two sons. But they were unable to have more children, and they especially desired a daughter. As Catholics, they knew that members of the clergy from the Cleveland Catholic Diocese were deeply involved in El Salvador, where thousands of children were losing their parents in the civil war.

"We felt we were so blessed, in so many ways, that we were in a position to help people who needed it," Stephanie Craig said, explaining why they contacted Concern For Children.

In October 1984, the Craigs went to San Salvador to adopt a little girl known only as Imelda N. The N stood for "no se sabe," or "unknown" because the severely injured 6-year-old couldn't remember her name. Government soldiers had taken her to a state-run orphanage outside San Salvador, claiming her parents had been killed in battle.

When they drove to the orphanage their taxi was surrounded by children who yelled, 'Americanos! Americanos! Take me! Take me!' " The Craigs were startled to realize that children who spoke only Spanish had learned those particular English words.

They were shocked again when the orphanage director suggested they forget about Imelda because her injuries were so severe. She offered to give them a healthier child. When the Craigs insisted they wanted Imelda, handicap and all, the woman brought out a child with a paralyzed leg and clothes covered with lice.

HASTY ADOPTION HEARING

The adoption proceedings took 15 minutes. A local judge reviewed Imelda's scant paperwork, certifying that her parents had "morally and materially" abandoned her. The Craigs think the process went faster because they came to court with gifts -- a bottle of wine and a canned ham. "We were advised to bring a gift for the judge," Stephanie Craig explained.

Officials at the U.S. Embassy were almost as swift; they gave the paperwork a superficial inspection, then issued an adoption visa. "We received almost no information about her in El Salvador," Tom Craig said. "We came back with two pieces of paper, which say nothing."

The Craigs renamed their daughter Gina and took her to Children's Hospital Medical Center in Akron. Doctors worried that she might always need a wheelchair, but she recovered so completely that she eventually played basketball with classmates in Stow. Her surgeon, Dr. Dennis Weiner, includes her case in lectures to medical students, saying, "If you don't believe in miracles, all you have to do is look at this child."

Her emotional recovery was less miraculous.

"In retrospect, it's a lot easier to understand the problems she had," Tom Craig said.

From the beginning, Gina insisted that her biological parents were still alive. "She told us that she remembered being in the hospital, and looking up to see her mother," Craig said. "Well, we'd been told her parents were killed.

"She didn't remember enough to be helpful. We wondered if maybe she imagined that she saw her mother as she was waking up from surgery."

"Or maybe she just saw a nurse who looked like her mother," Stephanie Craig added.

As she grew older, Gina grew increasingly troubled and distant. "We spent a lot of time and money on child psychologists," Tom Craig said. The psychologists believed Gina's story was the fantasy of a troubled child.

But as she grew older she grew more insistent and confrontational. "It got to the point where she said things like, 'I don't have to listen to you because you aren't my parents. My parents are still alive,' " Tom Craig said.

Gina ran away from home on New Year's Day and has lived since then with a foster family in Youngstown. She and the Craigs were working to reconcile as she completed her junior year at a Youngstown high school.

The truth caught up with Gina on April 22, when Stephanie Craig got a telephone call from Dr. Robert H. Kirschner of the Boston-based group Physicians for Human Rights. Kirschner told her that a couple in El Salvador -- Jose and Victoria Lainez -- had spent 12 desperate years looking for a daughter kidnapped during the war.

A search of Salvadoran court records showed that the Craigs had adopted a girl who was the same age and had similar injuries as their daughter Imelda. Kirschner asked for help determining whether Gina was the Lainezes' daughter.

"At first, I was just outraged," Stephanie Craig said. "I thought, 'How dare you search through adoption records -- which I thought were private -- and chase me down halfway around the world?!'

"But after a while I tried to put myself in the position of the family in El Salvador. If my child were taken from me, I would search the world for her."

The next day, the Craigs sat down with Gina to tell her about Kirschner's call. "We have some news for you," Tom Craig said, expecting her to be surprised.

"But when I said, 'Gina, we got a call from a doctor, and he thinks your parents in El Salvador are still alive,' she said, 'What do you think I've been saying for all these years? Did you really think I hallucinated all that?' "

Kirschner came to Ohio and explained how Imelda Lainez had disappeared. The story matched Gina's memories so well that no one was surprised on June 22, when a DNA test proved Gina and Imelda were the same person.

Jose Lainez had been a guerrilla in the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front -- the FMLN -- which was fighting to overthrow the U.S.-backed government of El Salvador. Two of his children -- Imelda, 6, and Velma, 8 -- were playing outside in April 1984 when the Salvadoran Air Force bombed a rebel-held area in the southern province of Ursulan.

Shrapnel struck Velma in the eye, killing her. More shrapnel struck Imelda in the hip and leg. Her uncle carried her to a secret FMLN field hospital, where the family saw her for the last time June 14, 1984.

"We went to visit her to make sure she was all right," Jose Lainez told the Boston Globe. "I remember they had cut her hair, and she was crying and crying. She begged us to take her, but I couldn't. I just couldn't take the child. She was hurt and it would have been dangerous. And we didn't have enough to eat."

The next day, government troops attacked, kidnapped the children, and destroyed the hospital. The Lainez family returned to find only rubble and a nurse's body.

Because there was no evidence that Imelda was dead, and no reason to hope she was alive, she had become one of the people Salvadorans call "the disappeared." These were victims of a government policy of demoralizing the rebels by arranging for them and their loved ones to vanish without a trace.

Jose Lainez was so devastated by the death of Velma and disappearance of Imelda that he dropped out of the FMLN and smuggled his wife and six surviving children into Guatemala.

But he never gave up the search. Eventually, Lainez found help from the Association in Search of Disappeared Children in San Salvador, where they unearthed the adoption file that led to Gina Craig.

Last week, Gina/Imelda flew to El Salvador with her adopted brother, Michael, 19. They met the Lainez family July 25 in an emotional reunion witnessed by the Salvadoran news media as well as a crew from 60 Minutes, which is to broadcast the story in September.

The arrival of a long-lost daughter from the United States is a top story in El Salvador, said Michael, a journalism student at Kent State University. "She's a media star. The only story getting more play down there is an earthquake."

DISCOVERY IS A BLESSING

The Craig family's reaction is not what you would expect.

"This is a godsend," Tom Craig said.

"Everything makes sense now," Stephanie Craig added.

When the Lainez family penetrated the barrier separating them from their Imelda, they somehow shattered the wall separating the Craigs from their Gina. "For the first time in years, I feel like I'm talking to Gina the way a mother should be able to talk to her daughter," Stephanie Craig said.

Michael Craig said he felt an immediate bond with his sister's biological family. "They adopted me," he said. The Craigs' fears about the reunion were soothed when they learned that the Lainez family, though very poor Salvadoran farmers, share so many of the Craigs' family-oriented Catholic values.

"They are such wonderful people, the kind you would be proud to be related to," Michael Craig said. Stephanie Craig said the Lainez family gave them a gift -- three miniature portraits of Jesus and Mary -- and that the Craigs gave the Lainezes three statues of the holy family.

Since the reunion, Gina/Imelda has made long, daily telephone calls to the Craigs, sharing feelings that have been hidden since a bomb blasted her into another world. "I'm a little afraid to open the telephone bill we're going to get next month," Tom Craig said, smiling.

Stephanie Craig laughed and said, "Suddenly, we are talking like never before, and it's costing us $3 a minute."

Caption:
1- The Craig family (left to right): David, 11, who is adopted, Michael, 19, and parents Stephanie and Tom in their Munroe Falls home ---- ED SUBA JR. / Beacon Journal,
2- Gina Craig, 17, above, who was adopted at 6 by the Craig family of Munroe Falls, has returned to El Salvador to meet parents she never knew were alive,
3- Below, Gina holds pictures of the family she was stolen from in El Salvador ---- Boston Globe photos,
4- Above, a photo of Tom and Stephanie Craig's adopted daughter, Gina, hangs on the wall as sons Michael, 19, and David, 11, talk with Tom in the dining room and
5- Below are religious icons sent to the Craigs by Gina's biological parents, who had searched for their daughter, originally named Imelda ---- ED SUBA JR. / Beacon Journal

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